“Imagining a world where the PR people had won”, Sociological Association of Aotearoa New Zealand Conference, University of
Sociological Association of Aotearoa New Zealand Conference, University of
Otago, 26 November 2008
Imagining a world where the PR people had won
Those of you who grew up in New Zealand will share my experience of a country of clean rivers and streams. We could swim in any river, drink from almost any stream and spend time by the smallest creek trying to catch little freshwater native fish. I remember as a child hearing about countries like the United States where they had “water pollution”. It seemed remote and unthinkable that New Zealand would ever have such problems.
As you know, New Zealand today, the land of water, has serious water pollution problems. A lot of rivers are too polluted to swim in, much less drink. Even some major ground water supplies are polluted. Lake Taupo is in risk of biologically dying. The creeks are mostly too polluted to have native fish. Many of them have dried up and disappeared. Even more surprising, there are water shortages. In Canterbury some rivers have so much water taken out of them for industrial farming that they disappear altogether in dry years.
These problems have grown slowly — too slowly to catch attention or prompt much concern — and then they have accelerated in the last 20 years when restructuring of the New Zealand economy led to changes to landuse and farming practises. Until recently there was no awareness outside a few specialists and now suddenly people are waking up to what’s been lost, and how it changes our lives. But even now the major water users and polluters unsurprisingly are still denying anything’s wrong.
This, I will be arguing today, is a good analogy to what’s happening
in the democratic sphere. We live in an era where the public spaces are being crowded with paid spokespeople, spin and trickery; where news and political discussion are being polluted by the glib outpourings of ever growing numbers of PR people; and where the public spaces available for real democratic activity are drying up.
These problems have grown slowly — too slowly to catch attention or prompt much concern — and then accelerated in the last 20 years as restructuring of the New Zealand economy has led to redistribution of power and resources and changes to our politics and media.
My subject for today is considering the CUMULATIVE IMPACT of the growth of public relations, and particularly its cumulative impact on the media and the other public spaces where politics occurs. I will give an overview of the trends: more and more paid manufacturing of news, more and more paid voices in so-called public discussion, increasing sophistication of manipulation, more media management, more fake community groups, more scripting of politicians by
unseen advisers and so on. My question is, how much is too much? When is the system broken, the river polluted?
I will describe some of the range of influences that undermine modern
democratic society. It is largely bad news but later I’ll talk about where I see the hope.
The fundamental squestion I’m discussing tonight is whether democracy is being rendered non-functional in the advanced democratic societies where we might imagine it is strongest.
My reason for talking about this here, at a sociology conference, is that I will be skimming over various issues that I believe deserve much more work and public discussion. Many have a bearing on the sorts of subjects that I can see from the conference programme others here work on. I hope you may be encouraged to work on some of things I raise.
From the 1930s until the 1970s, most PR in New Zealand was from the Government, particularly the Tourist and Publicity Department from 1930 and National Film Unit from 1941. In the early years there was a tiny number of private PR people and lobbyists: maybe one person for the liquor industry, another for the Manufacturing Association and everywhere else! The numbers and influence of professional PR people have grown a hundred fold since then. Today there are PR units in every government agency, Ministers offices, local government, universities, crown research institutes, state-owned enterprises and so on. There has been even greater growth in the private sphere. Private PR firms began to appear in the1970s and 1980s but since then there has been exponential growth. In Wellington, for example, there are now about 50 PR companies involved with 100s of clients and campaigns. On top of them there are numerous PR contractors, in-house PR people in large companies, specialised lobbying companies, numerous industry lobby organisations, law firms that offer PR and lobby services and a wide industry of support services that further enhance the advantage to those with the money to pay.
Looked at isolation, most PR seems relatively innocuous or at least just
part of “vigorous” debate and a “contest ” of ideas. And this is true. We
probably all know PR people. Most of them aren’t doing anything very evil
(although I will talk about the more destructive sorts in a little while).
They’re just helping some client get their message out. But it’s like the
example of water. A stream can maybe handle the runoff from one dairy farm and
a river handle irrigation for one new dairy farm. Then suddenly – and it does
happen quickly — when there are lots of new dairy farms the rocks all get
slimy in the stream beds, there’s not enough water for other river users and
large dead zones start to appear out to sea adjacent to the river mouths.
I will work my way towards the subject “imagining a world where the PR people
had won” – and whether they have – starting with looking at the political/media
environment we live in:
First, news. Anyone who works in or near the media or PR knows that most news
items on a given day are not the product of journalism. Although they are
presented by news organisations as something they discover and report, most
have been scripted, timed and stage managed by paid PR people. There have been some good studies comparing each day’s press releases with what is seen in the media. Much goes straight from the PR people into the news without any significant journalist input. Recently I was helping take a journalist training session and one of the chief reporters there said this is so common that he has introduced a rule of printing out press releases before assigning them to reporters because then they at least cannot just cut and paste directly from the press release. His modest goal, slightly rewritten press releases! In US, PR firms are now making complete TV news items — and the TV stations are running them as news.
It’s hardly surprising. The number of PR people goes up and up, while — as I’m
sure you’ve heard many times — newsrooms get smaller, budgets are squeezed and
the average age of journalists gets lower. Of course the news media sometimes
does something independent and even spectacular, but most of the time, on
nearly every issue, the PR people are better resourced, more numerous and more
focussed. The result is that for most new items, the public should be asking
who is behind the item, what are their motives and why now?
But it is much wider than individual pieces of news…..
Nowadays a whole issue or whole campaign can be created and run directly out of
public relations offices. I will give an example. One of the biggest public
debates in recent years was over GE foods, with groups formed all over the
country and quite strong public support for the GE-free movement. In the media
it looked like a two-sided debate, but one of those sides was almost entirely
manufactured by PR professionals.
At the beginning in the 1990s, the pro-GE lobby was run out of a Wellington PR
firm called Communications Trumps. The first incarnation was a body with the
friendly name Genepool. It described itself as an “independent education trust”
to give the public impartial information to balance the emotive and extreme
views of the GE-free groups. Genepool played a vigorous role until 1999 when
info was leaked by unhappy staff members about Communications Trumps covering
up genetic engineering experiments on salmon that had gone wrong in
Marlborough — and then later that the ‘independent education trust’ was
actually being funded by the giant US genetic engineering company, Monsanto.
Genepool was quietly closed down but a new front was immediately planned.
Communications Trumps called a meeting at law firm Russell McVeigh to plan the
formation of a new pro-GE lobby, the Life Sciences Network. Its first strategy
paper was prepared by the PR firm Consultus New Zealand, branding the GE debate
as “characterised by emotion not science” and setting as their goal to make the
Life Sciences Network the pre-eminent and credible advocate on the side of
science. But it was still not run by scientists. It was headed and run during
its four or so years of existence by a PR consultant from Consultus New Zealand
named Francis Wevers. It was aggressive and focussed in its tactics.
Like all major PR campaigns, the PR staff were backed up with a range of
resources such as media monitoring, select committee monitoring, marketing
companies, polling companies, economic research companies, contract writers and
on and on that provide all the backing to the well-resourced lobbies that money
can buy. One of the services PR campaigns like to buy in is senior media
figures, who are brought into the campaign in roles such as strategy advisers
and media coaches. With LSN, the supposedly independent commentator Colin James was very well paid for being its private political advisor.
The Life Sciences Network refused to declare who was putting up the money. but
it was awash with money, including hiring a floor of a building directly next
to the Royal Commission of Genetic Modification. By pumping out press releases,
flying in a succession of overseas experts who supported their position,
commissioning reports and opinion polls, cultivating allies close relations with the Labour Government and working to marginalise their opponents – including any scientists who spoke out questioning genetic engineering — this PR operation came to dominate the issue and eventually won: a few PR people and lots of resources beating a nationwide movement with a high level of public support.
After their victory, LSN had served its public relations
purpose and was closed down. Its head, Francis Wevers, moved on to head the
Gambling lobby in New Zealand — an organisation called the “Charities Gaming
Assn” — where recently he could be heard vehemently denying that gambling
addiction produces a large proportion of pokie machine profits. Wevers was
subsequently honoured with the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand’s 2005
Supreme Award for excellence in public relations for the Life Sciences Network.
Imagine dozens of campaigns like this going on all the time, on every controversial subject and even
more where it suits the clients to keep a low profile and avoid public debate.
Whenever there is a big issue like genetic engineering, or a controversial
industry, we should assume that somewhere in the background there will be PR
people like Francis Wevers. The lobby doesn’t need to have majority public
support, or any public support at all. All it needs is lots of money to buy in
the skills and resources of these sorts of PR people.
This can look like diversity, with lots of different voices, like a
contest of ideas, freedom of speech. But often it is only the paid voices
coming through. Then it’s diversity in the way that a plantation pine forest
has diversity… there are some ferns and shrubs in the understory, and a few
native birds. But the structure and all the dominant trees are the result of
My point is… we should be considering the cumulative impact, on issue after issue, of having dozens of these sorts of commercially constructed political and social-
engineering campaigns filling the airspace and dominating politics.
We should also consider the cumulative impact on the public spirited members of the public who try to contribute to the politics of their country and find
themselves up against this sort of slick, well-resourced PR campaign. On one
side voluntary people, on the other the ability to buy in endlessly re-
Another example is climate change. The Labour-led Government’s efforts to
introduce a carbon tax met a massive counter-campaign from all the large
emission producers. Eventually the pressure of opposition led Labour to drop the plans. There was an interesting university study of this anti-carbon tax campaign that found that nearly the whole thing had been coordinated from one Wellington lobby firm (Saunders Unsworth), again mostly by one very well resourced and energetic PR person. Moreover, it found that, unbeknown to the public, the campaign had been organised by none other than the coal industry, which chose not to show its involvement but had an obvious vested interest in killing measures to control climate change. To give a very different example, the campaigns behind the law and order hysteria in this country also warrant exposing. As PR people say to each other: the best PR campaign is the one that no one realises is going on.
Media organisations run the press releases and quote the well-timed visiting
experts often without stopping to consider and report on the PR campaigns in
An example of this is the completely unanalysed elimination of the politician Winston Peters at the 2008 election.
As I already said, with most PR campaigns there isn’t a public campaign on the
other side and the industry campaigns are virtually unopposed. An example of
this is the finance sector, who have long-term PR strategies to promote the
interests of the foreign finance companies. One of their tools is paid public
voices, who are the main voices heard commenting in the media on most financial
and economic issues — naturally enough pushing the sorts of policies that aid
profits for finance companies. These voices are so normal, and accepted so
uncritically by most media, that we don’t even think of “BNZ economist”
and “ASB economist” and “Bancorp economist” as industry lobbyists. Another
example is the Real Estate Institute, whose vigorous long-term PR strategies
are working diametrically against what many of you would care about in housing.
It has, for instance, run a long-term campaign to avoid capital gains taxes in
New Zealand, a campaign that benefits from the fact that no one is even aware
there is a campaign going on.
Defenders of Public Relations say by about this stage: why shouldn’t everyone
get to have their say? That’s democracy. That’s true up to a point but it
depends whether the paid voices effectively drown out or crowd out the rest. More and more, they do. But there’s more than this. In my years of studying PR, I’ve discovered that a lot of the effort doesn’t go to helping their client have a say, but into trying to stop their political opponents from having a say. “Communications”
people who are anti-communications. The LSN specialised in this. Some of you
may be aware of a clear example of this in my 1999 book Secret and Lies.
The book, based on 100s of leaked PR papers, describes another campaign devised and coordinated by PR people. It included a fake community group (the Coast Action Network), lavish funding of coopted experts and all the usual spin. Their PR strategy was clear: public support for cutting down old native forests full of kiwi and other rare species was firmly against them. They couldn’t win the debate so over half the work went into trying to silence their opponents. Obviously if their was no debate, there would be no pressure for change.
This PR activity, of silencing the public where it doesn’t suit a client, is
naturally something that will be done quietly. However, I think that a huge
amount of this goes on and we live with the results of it in the kind of
society we have.
I believe that to understand current New Zealand society, one of the most
important mechanisms to understand is the past and present attacks on cerain groups of people. For example, one of the vigorous PR vehicles in the 1980s was NZBR. It claimed of itself that it was purely a source of information and analysis, but
one of its main tactics was active attacks on anyone prominent or influential
that did not support its beliefs. Many people were hounded out of positions of
influence by its efforts. Because the winners wrote lots of this history, these
events need more analysis to understand the long-term effects. However there is
a lot of evidence of the journalists who got repeated attacks and found
themselves marginalised at that time. The same with public figures like
economist Brian Philpott, who was hounded out of the Wellington newspapers. One Wellington lobby firm specialised in pressuring journalists (it’s co-founder is
still a dominant character in Wellington PR and lobbying).
The same thing happened in universities and the public service – with nasty
attacks on critics of Rogernomics and behind the scenes manoeuvring to
undermine their employment. Many people were pushed aside in this way, while
other were favoured and promoted. NZBR head Roger Kerr went onto VUW council
from 1995-99 to continue this process, actively investigating and making life
difficult for lecturers who were outspoken against the policies he believes in.
A university economist told me recently that there had not been a single appointment of a left-leaning economist to any university department in New Zealand for about 20 years. If correct, this would mean that – even though New Zealand has moved a lot since the 1980s and 1990s — econ students today are still getting an almost uniform diet of free market ideology.
There was an important moment in this chilling of political diversity in the
late 1990s, that has affected journalism ever since. In 1989 there was a
current affairs programme: Frontline: Pro Bono Publico/For The Public
Good that looked at the links between 1980s Labour Government politicians and key businessman who were benefitting personally from its economic reforms (such as privatisations). Looked at today, the programme looks unexceptional, but at the time it was highly controversial. TVNZ was sued, the journalists were attacked from many directions and TVNZ restructured its current affairs into the Auckland offices to ensure that nothing like it happened again. The lead reporter eventually left the country. He now works for Australian ABC radio in Darwin. TV current affairs and TV journalism has mostly been cautious and populist ever since. This is an important piece of NZ media history. Like universities, we are still living with the effects 20 years later. A year after the Frontline programme Richard Long took over as editor of Dominion newspaper and turned it to right, issuing to reporters a list of people who would not be quoted in the paper any more.
To understand New Zealand of today we need to be aware of these activities over the last 20 years — those who were promoted and those pushed aside. Many people in top roles in unis, science, media etc today are products of that time. We are, in part, still living in the world made by the free market lobbyists and their aggressive political strategies. This deserves more study and discussion.
Alongside this there has been a literal shinking of the public space available
to other voices. At the same time as paid interests get more and more outlets, the space for normal public involvement in politics seems to be getting less. Have other people noticed this? In my city — supposedly the political centre of the country —
there used to be a pleasing clutter of political posters on all sorts of
subjects … today there are virtually none. It recently became clear why this
was. The WCC had made a rule that NO posters are allowed on any lampposts or
other sites in the city, and if it finds any it has them cleaned off straight
away and sends the bill to the group concerned. It gets worse. There are some
public poster locations in the city, but the council privatised them. They
signed a contract with a private poster-sticking company that gives it
exclusive rights to the public spaces — meaning that they have just become as
extension of commercial outdoor advertising. Not only that, the council
stipulated that the private poster company is not allowed to put up political
posters. These are the decisions of people who see the world through corporate
eyes — seeing lspace for paid advertising and messages all over the
city — but don’t give a single thought to there being public space, democratic
To me this epitomises the wider problem: the DE-LEGITIMISATION OF POLITICAL
ACTIVITY (including the denigration of ‘activitists’). Think how weird it is the PR
people get media space and credibility as political commentators while people
working for the public good are called “activists” and treated with suspicion.
It is the wrong way around.
The de-legitimisation of political activity is also seen in the DISCOURAGEMENT
OF POLITICAL ACTIVITY BY PUBLIC SERVANTS…..When I first got involved in
politics in Wellington, the organisers, spokespeople and writers for public
campaigns were often public servants. Today there are many examples of where
public servants are made to feel they’ve done something wrong — or are
actively punished — for being involved in politics as a citizen outside their
work time. I meet public servants who are fearful about politics for this
reason. The message, at the centre of government, seems to be all wrong. I think this needs more investigation.
This has the effect of removing large numbers of informed and concerned people
from active involvement in politics. I think it should be a national objective to have
as many people as possible feeling positive and empowered about being active
citizen. But, if anything, political activity is being framed as something
You know this, but I should also note in passing that being outspoken as an
academic isn’t always easy, even though it should be a job requirement in a
SOMETHING’S WRONG. IT’S AS IF THE MESSAGE IS THAT POLITICAL ACTIVITY IS BAD. IT’S AS IF MANY PEOPLE IN POSITIONS OF AUTHORITY DON’T ACTUALLY BELIEVE IN DEMOCRACY, DON’T RESPECT THEIR FELLOW CITIZENS…. I FIND THIS REMARKABLE AND WORRYING.
In contrast, let’s consider what we do hear in the media…
One aspect of the narrowing of public space is, of course, the media itself.
Foreign ownership, the commercialisation of TVNZ, the privatisation of RNZ’s commercial network and a narrowing of the range of publications in New Zealand have all reduced the democratic space. The country’s main reasonably intellectual and progressive magazine, the Listener, has become a lifestyle magazine with National Party politics. There’s no Guardian or Independent. New Zealand has almost no space for ideas even vaguely left of centre. The risk is that this becomes normal and we no longer even notice what we’re missing.
Actually, I think it has already become normal and it’s not being noticed enough. Let’s look at the political range of voices in our media…..
NZH: Fran O’Sullivan, John Roughan, Colin James, Garth George on the right, with less ideological voices being Tapu Misa and Brian Rudman.
Dominion Post: Richard Long, Rosemary McLeod, Bob Jones, Simon Upton, Matthew Hooton, with Chris Trotter as almost sole voice from the left.
The Listener: Jane Clifton, Deborah Cone Hill, Bill Ralston, Joanne Black, with
a little economic column hanging on from Brian Easton.
On Newstalk ZB (the privatised RNZ network, that many more people listen to
than RNZ) the main voices are three right wing bigots: Paul Holmes, Larry
Williams and Leighton Smith, and their regular commentators such as Graeme
Hunt, Jane Clifton and Michael Bassett.
And so on. Matthew Hooton also appears regularly on Radio Live, RNZ Nine to
Noon, the Sunday Star-Times and on television. And who is Hooton? A full-time
PR man – a prominent figure in Brash’s National Party, Timberlands, pro-
tobacco, pro-nuclear ships and many contemporary clients via his Auckland PR
firm. A measure of the lack of balance in the media is how often we hear him.
This media environment naturally has direct effects on politics and generally
on what ideas have dominance in society. Things they don’t like tend to be
mocked and their prejudiced world view is normalised. Without other voices, or enough other voices, these views prevail.
This is part of how a modest little private members bill about child violence,
section 59, become a huge and foolish hoohah about an ‘Anti-Smacking Bill”?
Why, because there are so many voices repeating that point of view. Why do
we “know” that the Electoral Finance Act is an outrage against freedom of
speech? Because we heard it so often. I think this is crucially important for
understanding our politics, for understanding the way lot of issues are regarded, and for understanding what needs to be done about it. Think of the issues you care
about. Also there is: Why are critics of free trade crackpots? Why are Green
Party policies loopy? Why did Winston paters’ dodgy election finances get
literally dozens of front pages this year and the National Party’s, after my
national Party book came out, get almost none? Lot’s of it is about the voices that have come to dominate the public space.
We’ve all recently endured an election campaign that was ‘boring’, the press
called it, artificial and lacking real debate. The campaign was a strange
uninspiring experience, with journalists hanging around waiting for slips or
unusual incidents, since the the daily photo opportunities were boring. But
this misses the point that the nature of the election campaigning is very
important, that the ‘boringness’ needs to be analysed and challenged rather
than writing off elections, democracy, as being poor entertainment for the
easily bored masses.
What I found in my last big project, the book The Hollow Men, is that this is mostly deliberate…….
MINIMISE AND AVOID POLICY
LINES/artifice/”crisis management” approach to issues
(Then there is the familiar irony: after avoiding policy as much s possible,
years of negative attacks instead of debating policy and presidential-style
impression management over substance, the politicians who win the election
immediately claim they have a resounding public endorsement for their policies).
…. Little wonder that there was almost the lowest voter turnout in a century.
I take this as sign of damage being done to the democratic sphere.
These were just a few of the subjects my book The Hollow Men. If you were one of the people who was put off by the National’s Party’s damage control, and believed that the book was just about Don Brash, or his e-mails, or all made up, I urge you to
take a look at the priceless inside picture of the thinking and workings of a
political party that my inside sources provided.
There are many other areas of PR — crisis management (at its worst the art of
distracting, diverting and bluffing a client out of responsibility for a
crisis), environmental and social responsibility programmes (usually the least
environmentally or socially responsible companies trying to do some
greenwashing), producing resources for schools (a particularly insidious
area), numerous aspects of what is called “government relations” and
sponsorship, which sounds innocuous, or even altruistic, and usually isn’t.
In all these ways, bit by bit, they shape our society. They become normal, just
part of the landscape. We don’t notice what is missing, or the underlying
distribution of power that is shaping what we see.
I think my title probably sounded overly cynical. “Imagining a world where the
PR people had won.” But let’s imagine what that world would look like and judge
how real it sounds. In it, most messages heard in public would come from PR
people. In it, the public actions of powerful individuals from politics and
business would be planned and scripted by PR people. Answers by politicians
would have that artificial sound of scripted lines. Election campaigns would be
controlled and scripted. Even ‘protests’ and ‘public campaigns’ would be the
product of PR people. And other voices, groups and ideas would be pushed to the
In other words, when we imagine a world where the PR people had won, we are
already there. To a considerable extent, the well his already being poisoned
and the streams are drying up.
A symptom or consequence of this is how many people feel about politics. I
heard a story a few years ago about a new resident in Auckland, from China, who
cried the first time he was able to cast a vote. How do New Zealanders feel?
Many say they “don’t like politics” or “don’t like politicians”. This could be
dismissed as apathy, or complacency, or cynicism. But I think it’s more
accurate and helpful to recognise the things that alienate people from
politics, that show them they don’t matter, that disappoint them when they do
go up against the Life Sciences Network or whatever and try to make a
difference. When people “don’t like politics” it’s not about them, it’s about
the poor health of democratic society.
But this anti-democratic kind of politics of course hasn’t won. It is dominant -
- so dominant, we barely notice. But it hasn’t won. History goes on and society
is made of many, many parts, some getting better at the same time as others are
What can we do? A lot of what I’ve talked about can’t be changed in the
foreseeable future. But some can. And, more important, other things can happen
that counterbalance the influence of the paid voices and politics.
1. Talk about these issues, as they affect your specialties and more
widely. Study the influences. Talk about it in public, which is always the
first step towards change.
2. Relegitimise democratic politics. Stick up for it. Talk about it. Take
part. Unless it is named and explained, it cannot be defended. Unless some
people lead by example, how are other people going to regain hope about their
own political selves (hope is a casualty is all this).
3. De-legitimise public relations and the anti-democratic style of
politics I’ve been talking about. It needs to be named and discredited.
Politics by secrecy, spin and manipulation are not worthy causes but they need
to be held up to the light or they will continue unchallenged.
4. Find, promote and support different people to be public voices in our
society. We need to encourage and promote more people into these roles – not
leave it to the Matthew Hootons. Sometimes (you may know the feeling) I wonder
if all the intelligent people have gone overseas or something and we’ve just
been left with the lineup we see in the media. Then, of course, I immediately
meet marvellous, interesting people all over the place. The problem isn’t that
they don’t exist – it is that they aren’t as conspicuous as those currently
getting the public space. The answer here is for others to do it (for example
academics!), learning the skills and building up the confidence to get out there
and use their voices and power. We also need to support the people who speak
up. This has to be a joint effort against the current dominance of a narrow range of
5. Not lose hope ourselves about democratic politics. I think a lot of people privately feel pessimistic about politics. My experience is that there are always numerous idealistic and principled people who care about the kinds of issues being talked about at this conference. There are many, many people, young and old, who are not represented by the cynical, dumbing down influences. When politics feels unsatisfying, they may seek other outlets – like the astonishing numbers of social service and conservation groups operating invisibly all over the country – but the people are there waiting for better things than currently seem to be on offer. We should get hope from them. PR politics mostly works by tricking, dodging or discouraging the public, not by winning their hearts. There are lots of people waiting for things to be different.